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Clinton vs. Dole: The Larger Stakes : Why trimming a President’s sails can hurt the presidency

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Last week Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole was among the congressional leaders who wisely fought to keep Congress from limiting President Clinton’s foreign-policy options in Somalia. Yet what a difference 48 hours make. On Sunday the Kansas Republican announced that he will introduce legislation that could have just such an effect on the President’s options in Haiti. What gives?

PRIORITIES OVER POLITICS: Not only is Dole’s latest move inconsistent, it suggests he has things backward. The Senate’s top Republican is willing to give the President the freedom to maneuver in Somalia, a faraway country of no strategic significance to the United States. Yet in Haiti, where the crisis is closer to home and could even have a direct impact on this country, Dole wants to tie Clinton’s hands. There’s a problem with that logic.

Ideally, the chief executive should always have a measure of freedom to act to protect U.S. interests in any foreign-policy crisis. That freedom should not be absolute. But it’s an important constitutional principle that Dole and other congressional leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, stood up for last week when they blocked attempts to cut off the money being paid to keep U.S. troops in Somalia as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation.

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Those efforts were launched by members of Congress reacting to public concern over the recent increase in U.S. casualties in Somalia. But while those casualties were tragic, and the public reaction to them understandable, they must not be allowed to panic Congress into setting rules that unduly limit the executive branch’s ability to act abroad.

That’s especially important in Haiti.

A two-year-long political crisis there is reaching a major turning point. The military leaders who ousted democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 have reneged on an agreement they signed at the United Nations to resign and allow Aristide to return. As a result, the United Nations and the United States have reimposed economic sanctions on Haiti, and Clinton has ordered Navy vessels to patrol the waters off Haiti to enforce the sanctions.

The President has also refused to rule out the possibility that additional U.S. military force might be used, if necessary. He needs that option--and Haiti’s generals are watching to see whether the preeminent power in the Western Hemisphere means what it says.

IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: So this is the worst possible time for Congress to be backbiting the President on foreign policy. The issue involves much more than constitutional principle and presidential prerogative. Haiti is so close to our shores it becomes a major source of illegal immigration whenever a crisis erupts there. Getting this latest Haitian mess settled as quickly as possible is a matter of U.S. self-interest.

Dole is among those people in Washington who question whether restoring Aristide, an admittedly controversial figure, is worth risking American lives. The question is worth asking, but the answer is evident. The only time Haiti’s refugee flow slowed significantly was when Aristide was serving as president. It is indeed in our interest to make sure Haiti’s experiment in democracy is revived.

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